Jennifer Capriati is not a name that gets mentioned often nowadays and not really at all when talking Olympic swimming in advance of London.
And yet her story feels vitally necessary as we gear up for what will surely be an onslaught of words spent on 17-year-old American swimming phenomenon Missy Franklin — how good she is, how young she is, how many gold medals she might win, how amazing all of this is.
And it is amazing — the simple act of being that good at anything at that age. It also is fraught with an array of what can go wrong when money and pressure mingle with typical teenage hormones and sheer lack of experience.
Capriati was the face of this phenomenon once. It was not so much that it beat her as it skinned her knees a bit, a cautionary tale of what can happen when adults decide an ability to do athletic things well trumps a normal childhood.
It is hard to totally blame the Capriatis, even after reading the devastating Inside Tennis profile on what, charitably, is described as a tumultuous career.
By chance of timing, I had just returned from an interview with Franklin in Austin, Texas, when the magazine arrived filled with tales of a young Capriati struggling under the weight of being young and talented and highly sought-after in the 1990s.
Franklin and I had talked about the two proms she had recently attended — the music she played, the dresses she wore, her legendary dance moves. She giggled while talking about finally being a senior.
“Finals were definitely stressful, and AP tests were actually way more stressful than actual finals,” Franklin said. “But it’s all over. I am a senior in high school now, which is crazy to think about.”
Franklin is 17 and is experiencing much of what any 17-year-old does. But there is a price for those experiences — and not in some esoteric way. The prom and finals and AP exams have an actual price tag beyond the dress (bought in Indianapolis after an Olympic tuneup meet, by the way) and AP fees. Franklin cost herself hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements by not turning pro. The Wall Street Journal actually broke it down, the prize money and the possible endorsements and crazy cash potential if the US Olympic swimming trials are any indication of what is coming in London.
How you view the decision is almost like a Rorschach test on how you keep score in life. Is your scoreboard money? Or is it life experiences?
Because what is impossible to compute, especially in a society dazzled by dizzying amounts of money, is the value in things like prom and hanging with your friends and even AP tests. There is value in youth, in days you do not get back and never get to do over. Most of us do not realize this until we are much older, pushing snooze on the alarm clock in dread of the day ahead. It is then we wish we could go back and do family movie night or catch lightning bugs or read a book. We are in such a rush — almost all of us — to grow up, to do the next thing on our lists, to start the process of collecting money, that we miss the things it cannot buy.
What struck me talking to Franklin was not what she is giving up but what she is smart enough not to forgo.
“A huge part of swimming for me is I love it, and it is so much fun,” Franklin explained, “and I think a reason that it is so much fun for me is I have this whole other life outside of it, where I am able to be a teenage girl and enjoy life.”
This is why she stayed amateur despite the advice from many to take the money. The argument is sound. There are no guarantees the money will be there. The counter-argument is also sound. There is a guarantee that your youth will not be; even if you retire at 30 with millions of dollars like Michael Phelps, you can’t go back and go to prom.
Phelps has alluded to how hard it is, this loss of youth, and his is a success story of stacks of gold medals and Subway and various other money-producing endorsements.
What of those who go pro and falter or only kind of hit big? What do they have but regret?
Franklin really can say this, because it is true: “No matter what happens this summer, I am going back to my school, Regis, and have all of my sisters, and we have so many great experiences. . . . It is my senior year in high school. It doesn’t get more fun than that.”
The days ahead are chock-full of adventure whether she wins all gold or goes home empty. And there undoubtedly is a college scholarship, which would have otherwise been forfeited if she had gone pro.
“I really want to get that college experience in, and hopefully I will have the chance to go pro later on,” Franklin said. “I would love that money, obviously. Who wouldn’t? I know, at the end of the day, even though I have to turn down that money, it is the right decision for me.”
This is easy to say when you don’t have to worry about money, of course. Some athletes do not have the financial flexibility; a few have others to support, and a few more have parents and agents and promoters making the decisions for them.
One of the biggest tragedies of Capriati seems to be how complicit her father was in selling her youth. The article quoted a Mike Lupica column from long ago, after Capriati had been arrested in a small crime, listing the parents and agents and promoters as equally guilty. “The real crime here: theft of childhood,” he wrote.
Hindsight makes it easy to see. It is also true.
What kids really need, even amazingly talented and athletic kids, is for parents to bring wisdom into decisions like this. What they need are parents to say: “You will have your whole life to make money and only this very short window to be a kid.” This is exactly what Franklin’s parents did.
“For parents to sit down and let me turn down that kind of money is unbelievable,” Franklin told me.
What I wanted to tell her, and now wish I had, was that her parents gave her something better than anything she or they could have bought with the money. They gave her the ability to be 17, and it is the best gift possible.